Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 73

The plot thickened in St. Petersburg last week, when Valentina Matvienko announced that she would not, after all, be running for city governor in the election set for May 14. Although Matvienko had not formally announced her candidacy, she was clearly the Kremlin favorite and had taken temporary leave from her post as deputy prime minister in order to campaign. Early on, President-elect Vladimir Putin gave his blessing to her candidacy. Yet it was he who dictated her withdrawal, calling Matvienko back from her vacation supposedly because her presence was essential to the process of forming the government. In reality, Matvienko seems to have been recalled to Moscow on the basis of her poll ratings, which were lagging woefully and hopelessly behind those of incumbent Governor Vladimir Yakovlev (Russian agencies, April 4-6).

Putin’s decision to pull Matvienko out of the race marks the president-elect’s second failed attempt to replace a regional governor. The first took place in January, when the Kremlin’s candidate for governor of Moscow Oblast, Gennady Seleznev, lost the election to General Boris Gromov. As the nominee of Yuri Luzhkov’s Fatherland/All Russia, Gromov was not at all the Kremlin’s idea of a desirable candidate.

Putin himself always left an element of ambiguity in his attitude toward the St. Petersburg election, while Governor Yakovlev, even prior to Matvienko’s withdrawal, consistently denied that he was in conflict with the Kremlin and even claimed to have its support (Russian agencies, April 3). Following Matvienko’s withdrawal, Putin was quick to say that he had not asked her to drop out, but had merely wanted her to return from her vacation, given that he himself had not abandoned his post while the presidential campaign was underway.

It is not however possible to hide a fact which is unpleasant less for Putin than for his allies. Putin, in taking a decision and later apparently refusing to take responsibility for it, demonstrated that he has little desire to consider the interests of those who took his side in the St. Petersburg political battles–Russia’s right-wingers. The Matvienko decision was the second blow Putin had dealt to the right-wing in the St. Petersburg election campaign. The first was his conversation in early March with the person who had the best chance of defeating Yakovlev, former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who now represents Yabloko in the State Duma. After meeting with Putin, Stepashin decided not to enter the St. Petersburg race, bowing out instead in favor of Matvienko. This caused Yabloko to back away from a possible right-of-center coalition. It also strained relations inside the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), whose St. Petersburg branch resented the decision of the SPS’s Moscow leadership to endorse Matvienko.

Yabloko attempted to save the situation by proposing the deputy head of its parliamentary faction, Igor Artemev, as a consensus, right-of-center candidate against Yakovlev. Matvienko herself called on her supporters to back Artemev once she withdrew from the race (Russian agencies, April 5). Other right-of-center groups have not, however, rushed to back Artemev. The SPS put forward its own candidate, State Duma Deputy Yuli Rybakov. The pro-Putin Unity movement, which was left completely bewildered by Matvienko’s withdrawal from the race, has neither put forward its own candidate in her place, or declared in favor of either of the leading candidates. Vadim Sergienko, a member of the council of Unity’s branch in St. Petersburg, said there was no realistic alternative to Yakovlev, given that Artemev and Rybakov, while “wonderful guys,” were “practically unelectable” (Russian agencies, April 5). As for Luzhkov’s Fatherland, which had earlier supported Matvienko, it made an unsuccessful attempt to put forward State Duma Deputy Artur Chilingarov (NTV, April 9). And Fatherland’s traditional allies from the All Russia movement announced that they were backing Yakovlev (Russian agencies, April 7).

The inability of Yakovlev’s opponents to agree on a common candidate bears out Sergienko’s remark, cited above. The fact that three candidates–Artemev, Rybakov and veteran corruption fighter Yuri Boldyrev–are all challenging Yakovlev means that none of them has any chance of winning. Moreover, Yakovlev stands a good chance of winning in a first round. All this prompts the suspicion that Putin decided against an open confrontation with the incumbent governor, even though this entailed inflicting a stinging defeat on his own allies–Yakovlev’s opponents.